December 2017
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Imagine Flatbush 2030

flatbush street mural art

While the federal government has sat on the sidelines, local government has provided true leadership in response to global climate change in the United States. Last year, New York City joined a small but growing list of American municipalities such as Boston, Los Angeles, and Seattle in aligning planning and development goals with ambitions to reduce carbon emissions.

Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC2030 was designed to lay the groundwork for achieving and maintaining affordable housing, open space, comprehensive public transportation, and reliable energy, as well as clean air, water, and land. A year has passed and PlaNYC has seen both successes and failures. MAS set about this past year to address what we perceived to be a critical issue that is nonetheless often overlooked: sustainability planning is too important to be left solely to the experts.

Sustainable planning should start with a sustainable process. – With the support of the Rockefeller Foundation and in partnership with the Flatbush Development Corporation, MAS created a demonstration project: Imagine Flatbush 2030 to bridge the gap between PlaNYC’s sustainability goals and consensus-driven community-based planning. Over the past year, the MAS Planning Center has worked with residents, business owners, youth, community leaders, social service providers, and clergy in Flatbush to assist them in creating a neighborhood sustainability and livability agenda, and tools to measure progress towards consensus-based goals.

Flatbush, Brooklyn: New York City’s Mirror – Flatbush is one of the most racially and culturally diverse neighborhoods in the city. Building stock varies from detached Victorian homes to high-density apartment buildings, with Flatbush Avenue serving as the neighorhood’s commercial spine. Flatbush has a growth rate of eight percent annually, and has struggled to balance growth while sustaining the neighborhood’s diversity and character. Rising housing prices and gentrification threaten socioeconomic diversity and the lack of open space and heavy vehicular traffic compromise quality of life. Trends evident in Flatbush are reflective of the city as a whole: large immigrant population; rising housing prices; increases in traffic; and the replacement of neighborhood retail with chain stores.

The Process – The Imagine Flatbush 2030 forums focused on raising awareness, discussion, and consensus-building, and resulted in a neighborhood sustainability framework based on quality of life issues. After a framework was established, people worked in groups for several months to prioritize concerns, create goals, and identify action steps and ways to measure progress towards goals. The project hinged on the participatory process – enticements such as food, child care, and translation were provided in order to maximize local participation and to gather as much local knowledge as possible.

The Outcome – The picture painted by Flatbush residents on neighborhood sustainability was complex, and pointed to overlapping concerns about the environment, society and the economy. While traditional environmental indicators of sustainability such as air and water quality were generally recognized as important, people also prioritized housing, health and safety, and retaining neighborhood diversity as being equally important. Economic development and support for local entrepreneurship emerged as key themes – people were concerned that income levels had to be sufficient in order to meet basic needs in the neighborhood.

Not a Plan, But a Set of Planning Tools… – Imagine Flatbush 2030 provides a model with the hope that every neighborhood in New York City will rise to the challenge of sustaining our city into the future. MAS challenges the city’s administration to think big and not just about sustainability, but about the participatory process as well. The city’s sustainability goals should be translated into realistic growth targets, city planners should work with residents to add sustainability indicators in neighborhoods that have already created their own plans, and the city should provide sufficient resources to enable other neighborhoods to partner with the city and develop their own neighborhood sustainability plans. Once this has been achieved, only then should the city proceed with implementing PlaNYC2030.

The writer is director of the MAS Planning Center.